The five founders of Cedarville College, one of whom was James Morton, the pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian church in Cedarville from 1863 until his death in 1903, comprised a committee formed by the Reformed Presbyterian Synod to find a place to establish a Christian College for their young people. The church in Cedarville offered to provide the land for such a College (which ultimately did not happen), and there were people in Cincinnati interested in supporting it financially, so the college ended up in Cedarville. The founders obtained a charter from the state of Ohio in 1887 to establish Cedarville College. But in the early 1890's, in the absence of any meaningful financial support, the dream appeared to be over. In fact, at the 1890 meeting of the Board of Trustees, there was a recommendation that the entire enterprise be abandoned. At the height of this crisis, the Board received word of a $25,000 bequest made to Cedarville College from the estate of Mr. William Gibson of Cincinnati in memory of his father. This news revitalized the interest in getting the College off the ground. So in 1892 the Board of Trustees passed a resolution "...that an effort be made to revive an interest in the institution, and that the pastors in the different congregations be requested to bring the matter before their people at an early day, and urge them to contribute liberally for the establishment of the College." In May 1894, the Trustees were directed to erect or rent a suitable building and secure teachers to begin classes. A home on Route 42 north of Cedarville was rented and the College opened in the Fall of 1894 with 32 students. Interest earned from the Gibson bequest kept the College going through 1896. And the principal from the bequest made possible the purchase of the original 12 acres and the construction of what is now Founders's Hall in 1895. Dr. McKinney, the first president, later said of this bequest at the most critical moment, "...it was as if Providence had determined that this ministry go on."
In 1915, Dr. W. Renwick McChesney was appointed as the second president of Cedarville College. McChesney had been the first faculty member hired by the College in the Fall of 1894, and he had served in a number of leadership positions since then. McChesney came to the presidency with great anticipation for the College's future. In his inaugural address entitled "The Ideal College," he noted that Cedarville had the supreme mission of molding young lives for Christ's crown and covenant, and he pledged his personal loyalty to that mission. After the challenges of World War I, the early 1920's found the College involved in plans to expand facilities and raise endowment funds; during this period the enrollment grew to 135. These efforts resulted in the construction of Science Hall in 1923, today called Collins Hall. Dr. McChesney commanded the respect of his denomination and his community; he even served seven terms in the Ohio legislature while President. Some have called the early years of McChesney's tenure as the "golden years" of the College. But soon, separation from the Reformed Presbyterian denomination and the onset of the Great Depression created significant financial and operational pressures for the College and for the leadership of Dr. McChesney. In addition, theological conflicts led to decisions that eroded the authority of the president. In 1939, Dr. McChesney's wife died, and as he approached 70 years of age, the pressures of the office of president and his desire for a younger man to take over those duties, led him to submit his resignation in June 1939, requesting that a replacement be found no later than June 1941. Several short term presidents followed, but strong leadership did not. And soon the effects of World War II were upon the College. Thus the financial challenges of the Great Depression, the impact of World War II on enrollment, poor leadership following Dr. McChesney's tenure as president, depleted endowments, and growing debt led the College to the brink of closure in the early 1950's.
On the verge of closing the College in 1953, the Cedarville Board of Trustees were looking for a merger with another institution or for another group to assume the responsibility for the College. At the same time, the Baptist Bible Institute of Cleveland was searching for another property to which they could move to ease crowdedness and to expand to a four-year college. Dr. James T. Jeremiah, the pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio, and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Baptist Bible Institute, became aware of the availability of the Cedarville College campus, and after visiting with the Cedarville Trustees, recommended that BBI assume responsibility for Cedarville College, taking over an institution with declining enrollments and increasing debt. Though reluctant to leave the church ministry he loved, Dr. Jeremiah was finally persuaded to become the president of Cedarville College in 1953, now under Baptist direction after its first 66 years under Presbyterian leadership. Classes started in the Fall of 1953 with about 100 students, most of whom had moved down from Cleveland to be a part of the new endeavor. During Dr. Jeremiah's tenure, the College began the transformation from a struggling school to an accredited institution of higher learning respected for its graduates, programs, faculty, and facilities. College enrollment steadily increased during Dr. Jeremiah's tenure, reaching more than 1200 by the mid-1970's. This transformation of the institution also included the expansion and development of the campus with major new facilities being constructed and additional land being purchased for future growth. Facilities added included the College Center, the Science Center, a new library, a new chapel, and additional dormitories. By the late 1970's, Dr. Jeremiah determined that the College needed new and younger presidential leadership because the next steps in the development of the college would be large, requiring the investment of a significant number of years. Dr. Jeremiah did not want to start something he couldn't finish, so he stepped down as president in 1978, and the reins of leadership passed to Dr. Paul Dixon.
Dr. Paul Dixon inherited the leadership of an institution well positioned to move to new levels of leadership in Christian higher education. Sharing often that the only explanation for Cedarville is God, Dixon was able to balance stability and change. Without fail, Dixon kept the College in step with its motto — "for the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ" — and its mission — "to provide an education consistent with biblical truth." His strong emphasis on chapel and his challenging sermons were two of the most significant characteristics of his presidency. His evident, passionate desire for students to take part in the Great Commission never waned. Under Dr. Dixon's leadership, daily required chapel, which he called the "heartbeat of any Christian institution," continued to be a priority on campus. Yet the very opposite of stability — change — was another building block of Dr. Dixon's tenure. With a strong vision and a strategic plan in hand before he even began as president, Dixon led the University into tremendous growth. In his 25 years, $100 million in facilities were built on a campus that was expanded from 180 acres to 400. Cedarville added professional programs like Nursing and Engineering in the 1980's and 1990's, attained university status in 2000, and migrated from the quarter to a semester academic schedule. Enrollment grew from 1,185 students in 1978 to almost 3,000 shortly after the turn of the 21st century, and the number of faculty approached 200. As well, the University's focus on technology positioned it as a leader in the digital age. At the conclusion of Dr. Dixon's 25 years as president in 2003, he could reflect back on a maturing and stable University with an increased financial base, expanded budgets, and new facilities, but with all that a University which still stood firmly on the Word of God and existed for the testimony of Jesus Christ. Significant transitions were ahead, but a mature foundation had been built.
For Cedarville University, transitions were on the horizon, and new presidential leadership was sought to begin that journey. In 2003, Dr. William Brown was appointed the ninth president. Unlike the previous two presidents, he came to the position with an extensive academic background, including being an academic vice president and a college president. He would bring to the Cedarville campus his focus on a Christian worldview, the importance of cultural engagement, encouraging students to engage the culture based on biblical principles rather than isolating themselves from it, and a commitment to a broadened evangelical constituency for University support and students. As Dr. Brown assumed his new responsibilities, it was becoming more obvious that the traditional model, especially the financial model, of undergraduate higher education was beginning to change. The University was starting to feel the pressure to embrace new financial models, to search for new revenue streams, to develop new modes of educational delivery, and to discover new markets for students. This would lead to a plan to develop a financial leveraging model, to expand graduate programs, to grow professional programs with an emphasis in the health sciences, to increase online education opportunities and dual-enrollment programs, and to restructure the University for that growth, moving from a college departmental model to a university college model. A major undertaking for the University was the development and approval of the pharmacy major, involving a 7 year program of study culminating in a Doctor of Pharmacy degree, a first for the University. The construction of the new Health Sciences Center is a direct result of this commitment. More transitions are ahead, but a solid foundation exists with financial stability, stable enrollments, quality facilities, and visionary leadership. Early in his tenure, Dr. Brown led the University in a review and revision of its purpose statement, which not only reflects its current focus, but also its strong past and its bright future: "Cedarville University is a Christ-centered learning community equipping students for lifelong leadership and service through an education marked by excellence and grounded in biblical truth."